Complaints About the Police

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All police officers should:

  • Act with honesty and integrity;
  • Treat members of the public and their colleagues with respect;
  • Not abuse the extraordinary powers and authority they have; and
  • Act in a manner that does not discredit or undermine public confidence in the police service.

But what if they don’t? You need to know how to complain and make a claim in civil law for compensation.

What outcome can I expect for my complaint?

If upheld, a complaint can result in:

  • Advice being given to the police officer(s) concerned;
  • Additional training;
  • Formal warnings; or even
  • Dismissal

There is no financial compensation for the complainant though, so you cannot recover legal costs if you instruct a solicitor in your police complaint. Legal aid is not available for complaints.

Who can make a complaint?

Section 12 of the Police Reform Act states that a complaint may be made by any of the following:

  • A member of the public who claims that the conduct took place in relation to him or her;
  • A member of the public who claims to have been adversely affected by the conduct, even though it did not take place in relation to him or her. For example it could be as a result of a police shooting or in a road accident involving the police;
  • A member of the public who claims to have witnessed the conduct, such as a police officer using unnecessary force whilst arresting someone or being rude and offensive to someone;
  • A person acting on behalf of someone who falls within any of the three categories above, and who has the written consent of the complainant.

It doesn’t matter if the police officer is on or off duty you can complain in either instance.

Who can I complain about?

You can complain about police officers and members of staff working for a police force and other government bodies that have police-like powers.

The list of government bodies with police-like powers includes:

  • All police forces in England & Wales;
  • The National Crime Agency;
  • Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs;
  • The sections of the Home Office that carry out border and immigration functions;
  • Police and crime commissioners;
  • The Mayor’s Office for Policing and Crime;
  • The Gangmasters and Labour Abuse Authority;
  • British Transport Police;
  • Ministry of Defence Police.

What can I complain about?

The IOPC defines a complaint as an expression of dissatisfaction with the way someone has been treated or with the service they have received:

  • Inappropriate behaviour towards you by a police officer or member of police staff. For example, if they were rude or aggressive in their treatment of you, pushed or shoved you, or treated you unfairly or in a discriminatory way;
  • If you witnessed an incident where a police officer or member of police staff acted inappropriately;
  • If you have been adversely affected by the conduct of a police officer or member of police staff, even if it did not take place in relation to you;
  • How a police force is run such as policing standards or policy.

Examples of behaviour which could lead to a complaint:

  • A physical or sexual assault by a police officer or use of excessive force;
  • False imprisonment or being held by the police longer than is necessary;
  • Being subjected to harassment by the police or by an individual police officer;
  • Malicious prosecution or police negligence;
  • Trespass on or damage to your property by a police officer or seizure of property and refusal to return it.

Of course some of these are criminal offences like physical or sexual assault in which case the police are required by law to refer certain matters directly to the IOPC themselves. See ‘Direct referrals’ below.

How Do I make a Police Complaint?

Complaints can be made:

  • Via the IOPC website;
  • By email;
  • Through your MP;
  • Through a solicitor who deals with these kinds of cases;
  • To the police force itself using their own website complaints form, or the IOPC’s online form.

What Information Should I Include in a Police Complaint?

The IOPC website asks for:

  1. Your full contact and personal details, name, address, phone, email etc.;
  2. Who you are complaining about (including name, rank, ID, police station etc. of any officers involved);
  3. What happened (providing the who, when, why, what, where information);
  4. Information about any witnesses – name, address, contact details.

Obviously, the more information you can provide the better, especially about the incident you are complaining about. Don’t just provide a written account but also attach any supporting evidence you might have such as emails, letters, charge sheets, custody records (anyone who has been held in custody is entitled to a copy of their custody record after they have been released, so request it if you weren’t given it). Keep records as quickly as you can after the event so it’s clear in your mind and you include all that’s important and don’t forget things.

ONRECORD can help with collecting and storing evidence. Start using our evidence gathering tools today – sign up now.

Are there time limits?

There is no time limit for making a complaint but if you don’t complain within 12 months the police can decline to deal with it unless you give them a good reason. So get on with it.

How are Police Complaints dealt with?

Police complaints are dealt with as internal disciplinary matters by the police’s local Professional Standards Department and by the Independent Office for Police Conduct (IOPC), which oversees the police complaints system in England and Wales. Visit the IOPC website here.

There are three ways the authorities deal with police complaints:

  1. Local resolution;
  2. Local investigation;
  3. Direct referral to the IOPC.

Local resolution, is considered by the IOPC to be the “appropriate” approach for most complaints. It can result in an apology and change of police force policy or procedures, but NOT misconduct or criminal proceedings. This applies to issues which are relatively minor though annoying nonetheless. You should be notified by the police in writing of the decision.

As there is usually a right of appeal only to a Chief Officer, not the IOPC, and there is no right of appeal in complaints relating to how a force is run, local resolution is usually not appropriate for matters which also involve civil actions against the police (see below).

Local Investigation is used where local resolution is not considered appropriate. It has a formal procedure and terms of reference. The complainant should be updated every 28 days. It can result in sanctions for the police officers involved, e.g. misconduct hearings and final written warnings. The outcome should be confirmed in writing, often with the investigation report, which can prove useful for any subsequent civil claim.

In certain circumstances there is a right of appeal to the IOPC (within 28 days).

Direct Referral to the Independent Office for Police Conduct

Instead of investigating themselves, the police are required by law to refer certain matters directly to the IOPC. They include ‘complaints and recordable conduct matters that include allegations of conduct which constitutes’:

  • Serious assault;
  • Serious sexual offence;
  • Serious corruption including abuse of position for a sexual purpose or for the purpose of pursuing an improper emotional relationship;
  • Criminal offence or behaviour which is liable to lead to misconduct proceedings and which, in either case, is aggravated by discriminatory behaviour on the grounds of a person’s race, sex, religion or other status identified;
  • A relevant offence;
  • Complaints or conduct matters which are alleged to have arisen from the same incident as anything falling within these criteria.

An appropriate authority must also refer complaints that arise from the same incident about which there is a complaint alleging that the conduct complained about resulted in death or serious injury.

There’s guidance here with some examples of abuse of position and improper emotional relationship.

If you are dissatisfied with the outcome of your police complaint you may have a right of appeal.

Taking legal action against the police


If you make a complaint which is upheld, it will help you to make a civil claim (i.e. taking your case to court) for compensation for police misconduct. An investigation report from a local investigation would also help. Of course the police may still defend your civil claim even though you’ve made a successful complaint.

However, complaints upheld for minor infringements of the Police and Criminal Evidence Act, do not, in themselves, mean that you are entitled to compensation.

So you will not get compensation for things like:

  • Being refused a drink while in police custody;
  • Delay in being given your statutory phone call;
  • A police officer being rude.

Whereas issues which would get compensation include:

  • False imprisonment which is the ‘complete deprivation of liberty for any time, however short, without lawful cause’. This can happen for example in the course of a stop and search, on arrest or during questioning;
  • An assault whether physical or sexual;
  • Trespass on or damage to property;
  • The unlawful use of a warrant.

In these civil cases if you win compensation it can also result in most legal costs being awarded too.

Is legal aid available for a civil action?

Yes, if the claimant doesn’t have enough money to pay for it themselves and fulfils the eligibility test. You’ll have to provide detailed financial information about your income to the Legal Aid Agency so that they can assess your entitlement. Visit here for guidance on financial eligibility for legal aid in civil proceedings: income and capital means testing, passporting and the civil legal aid calculator.

Some solicitors also offer Conditional (‘no win no fee’) Fee Agreements in appropriate police misconduct cases. This means that you won’t be faced with a large bill if you lose your case. You would need to discuss whether your case is suitable for such an arrangement at an early stage so you know exactly where you stand.

Visit here for a no-nonsense account of Funding Options and No Win No Fee Police Claims for help claiming compensation in:

  • Actions against the police;
  • Data protection claims;
  • Sexual abuse compensation claims;
  • Personal injury accident claims;
  • Professional negligence.